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Arts Magnet High School returns to Dallas' Arts District

By Jerome Weeks

Dallas, TX – They call it the Green Room. But it's actually an open amphitheater and courtyard situated between the original 1922 home of Booker T. Washington High School and the new $55 million Nancy Hamon Wing that opened Monday.

[up on Ruth Woodward: Good afternoon, everyone! - crowd noise continues under]

The entire faculty and student body are here. The courtyard is lined with freshly planted trees, too young to provide much shade. So some 800 students swelter in the afternoon sun but still cheer principal Ruth Woodward as she welcomes them back downtown, back to the Arts District.

[up on Ruth Woodward: this historic day, fabulous day at Booker T Washington!]

For two years while construction went on, Dallas' nationally recognized Arts Magnet High School was housed in a windowless, converted shopping mall in Oak Cliff. But when this year's seniors won admission to Booker T. Washington almost four years ago, they were promised they would graduate from the renovated and expanded campus. It looked as if it might not happen. The move was scheduled for winter break. Then it was spring break. At the turn of the year, Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa began to have doubts.

Hinojosa: I came through January, and that's when I was alarmed. We're not going to be done by spring break. And then I came right after spring break, and I said, OK, now we got a chance to make it.

Dr. Hinojosa says it was important for Booker T Washington to return to the Arts District. The students can learn from the arts organizations already here, such as the Dallas Black Dance Theater and the Dallas Symphony - as well as the organizations that will be here with the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. It was also important that the new building address the students' needs; it was designed with working artists in mind.

Hinojosa: It's not your normal school, and it's not supposed to be a normal school. And that's what the end result was, and I think it's very exciting to incorporate all those unique techniques that are involved in the arts community.

While the arts community helped design it, the school community helped move it, says principal Woodward. The entire school had to be shifted over the past two weekends.

Woodward: When a new school opens, everyone pitches in, so you get transportation, and the maintenance people and the custodial people, and the locksmiths and it's fun to have all that camaraderie and working towards a goal.

The goal really hasn't been reached yet. Construction still goes on. A theater and art gallery aren't complete. Even classroom furniture is still being assembled. But what's here already - 170,000 square feet of computer labs and music rooms has students giddy with excitement. Says dance junior Jamie Mathieu:

Jamie: No one's ready to work yet. We all just want to play and explore. It's great to be back.

[ sound: drums]

Just the studio where the African Dance Ensemble is warming up is four times the size of what the students had been using. Arts patron Nancy Hamon's $10 million gift to the Arts Magnet is believed to be the largest private grant to a public arts high school in the United States.

In its old home historic, but overcrowded and inadequate Booker T. Washington produced 19 presidential scholars in the arts as well as such music stars as Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. What artists might this new facility produce among the students now standing in the sunlight in the courtyard singing their school song?

[out on students singing]

This is Jerome Weeks for KERA.